Opinion: What Sotomayor Senate vote really portends for Obama’s future

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President Obama heads out this morning on another presidential sales trip. You’ll never guess what he’s going to talk about.

Prediction: It won’t be missile defense. Hint: It’s something we’ll all soon need some healthcare to handle any more talk of.

He’ll talk about healthcare reform some more in Raleigh, N.C., and again answer some staged questions from employees at a Virginia supermarket.

Hopefully, this time the White House advance team has briefed the store manager on what to say when the TV crews surround him afterward. (Remember, the Caterpillar president last winter contradicting Obama’s speech claim that the urgently needed and then-still eagerly awaited economic stimulus would allow the plant to hire back laid-off workers?)


Obama departs with an unsurprising Senate Judiciary Committee vote to confirm Sonia Sotomayor in his aide’s briefcase. (Sotomayor vote details over here.) He’ll probably ...

... get her full Senate confirmation next week, so she can join the other eight justices and their 32 clerks when they all return in October from another really long and well-paid vacation.

By then, the rest of us will have been at work another whole month, and the president will have had a relaxing late August week paralyzing life on Martha’s Vineyard every time the family goes for an ice cream cone.

But what, if anything, does the Judiciary Committee’s 13-6 vote to confirm Sotomayor say about anything else -- Washington today, politics, Congress, healthcare?

With South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham voting for her, it doesn’t say ‘strict party-line vote.’ But pretty darned close.

We’ll see how the full Senate vote comes down to confirm the official death of the bipartisanship idea that was probably stillborn anyway. Polls show Americans like the idea or sound of bipartisanship, which is why Obama, and even George W. Bush over education reform, talk so regularly about desiring it. Sounds good, like pulling together to get swell, teamlike things done at summer camp.

But polls and elections also show that Americans collectively really don’t care whether bipartisanship happens, making them the raving hypocrites rather than the politicians who get blamed for partisan rancor when they’re merely reflecting the electorate.

In fact, numbers would suggest that as much as Americans profess to like amicability, they reward political divisiveness. In the autumn of 2005, half the Democrats in the Senate joined Republicans in a 78-22 confirmation of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr..

However, in 2006, the year of midterm elections, only four Democrats crossed the aisle to confirm Justice Samuel Alito in a 58-42 vote closer to party lines. Not one single Democrat voted for Alito in committee.

The result that year: Voters awarded control of both houses of Congress to partisan Democrat leaders Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi for the first time since 1994. And they haven’t really looked across the aisle since.

(The good news for Democrats from that election was gaining numerous conservative members from formerly Republican districts. The bad news now is Pelosi and Reid probably can’t get healthcare reform without giving something to these annoying less liberal Democrats.)

A few Republican senators will likely vote unnecessarily to give the president his choice of Sotomayor. But the party held ranks last winter on several key votes, including economic stimulus.

Now, less than a year ahead of the midterm election campaigns, when the White House party historically loses some congressional support anyway, the lesson the disarrayed GOP congressional opposition is most likely to draw, even before members’ August trips back home, is:

Gouge out a bold partisan line over healthcare reform and any other major issue the majority party brings forth.

We’ll see in November 2010 which side gets rewarded for doing what voters say they really mean -- or what they really mean when they say it.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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